Saturday, June 9, 2012


Consciousness is pretty interesting, no? I decided to study neuroscience at least in part so I could understand how a person could arise from chemical interactions. Four years later, I learned a lot of interesting things and just managed to retain enough that at parties I can look up from my excuse to not interact with strangers (books, pets, medicine cabinets) and excitedly interject in conversations “Oh, we learned about that in neuroscience!” before realizing I don’t remember the names of any of the structures or reactions. I then mumble something about the weather, and return to checking out the host’s medicine cabinet in shame. But I have not come very far with understanding consciousness.

Some people, such as Douglas Hofstadter (most famous for Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, but I only got through I am a Strange Loop. It’s very, very meta believe that a neuroscience-based explanation of consciousness isn’t satisfactory, because consciousness operates at a completely different level than neurons. He understands consciousness as a strange loop, an entry that can twist around to see itself like two mirrors reflecting each other to infinity (read the subtext of As Hofstader illustrates, this strange loop cannot be explained by the firing of neurons any more than then World War II can be explained with physics, although physics, of course, is the ultimate cause of everything that happened.

Other people, such as Steven Pinker (psychologist at Harvard, famous author, my favorite book by him being Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature) believe that consciousness is beyond human comprehension. The idea is that brains are products of evolution, so they are fit to study all kinds of things that aid in survival (physics, chemistry, social relations, to name a few) but they are not capable of comprehending consciousness. The brain is ultimately a survival tool, and so it wasn't made to twist around and study itself studying itself etc.

Maybe that’s the easiest answer, but I think that Steven Pinker’s theory makes the most sense. Though I understand that the brain does refer to itself in a loop, I fail to see how this would lead to consciousness. This is most likely due to my failure to understand as opposed to Hofstader’s failure to explain, but still. Instead, I believe that understanding consciousness is just beyond a human brain’s ability, like say communicating via hypersonic waves (elephants are amazing).

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